The Salazar del Norte Center and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District hosted the second annual State of the Rio Grande Basin on July 28, 2020. After a grim report of the status of our aquifer recovery effort, host and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar asked a poignant question of the presenters.
It is a question we should all be asking ourselves: What action will we take to lead economic development that will protect our water resources and promote its highest and best use?
I believe the answer lies right at our feet, the implementation of which has Slow Money written all over it - promoting soil health and adding value locally to what we produce to build a local food, fuel, and fiber system. As much as commodity agriculture has been our bread and butter, there is great value to be gained when we distinguish our resources and retain more of their value locally before exportation. This would provide greater profit per acre, create careers, jobs, support improved physical health, and protect our water.
One thing the pandemic has exposed is the frailty of our food system. For many years, the SLV has exported 90% of what it produces. This is no surprise. We produce enough potatoes to feed six states the size of Colorado. What is surprising and sad is that we import 90% of what we consume here. Thus, building our local food economy is low hanging fruit.
We know from the typically elevated relative feed value of SLV alfalfa that our unique growing conditions produce a higher plain of nutrition, especially when grown in regenerated soil. Let us quantify and capitalize on that, designating the SLV as the place where there’s more nutrition per bite.
The foundation of this approach has taken root here over the last twenty- thirty years. One example is the introduction of animal impact on crop/cover crop lands, a principle of soil health, and the addition of meat processing plants around the Valley, including Lucas Salazar’s meat processing shop just outside Manassa on the Rancho Salazar. This is an incredible boon to smaller scale animal producers, and essential to those who have direct markets.
The demand for locally raised meat has skyrocketed since COVID – 19 hit. We have but a few local meat processors are they are booked for months. I predict that once they taste local pasture-raised meat, people will not want to go back to feedlot-raised meat. It is a great time to capture this segment of our local food economy.
There’s also a great market demand for poultry, which got a leg up recently for small producers in the revision of State Rules. The restriction on this industry is processing, for which there is no local facility.
A similar case could be made for ancient grains, which grow very well here and is one of Colorado’s most in demand crops. This is a burgeoning industry that could benefit greatly with the expansion of local cleaning and milling facilities.
Aside from food, we are the second sunniest place on the face of the Earth, solar developers claim. We really haven’t scratched the surface with regard to solar energy generation.
And fiber presents itself in at least two crops coming from opposing ends of our timeline. Sheep are an historical crop, and hemp is just beginning. Both of these could use help with processing and distribution/marketing infrastructure.
Once the Valley has distinguished itself with its products and practices, all manner of tourism will follow. Agri-tourism and eco-tourism are fast- growing sectors of the travel industry. As has been the case throughout human existence, people travel in search of food. It is no different now. It is what has driven the microbrewery movement across the country for some years.
So, there is much that can be done – imagined, funded, built – that would benefit all of us in countless ways, not least of which is honoring and protecting our water.